Willard Morgan’s Vestiphobia, a large-scale interactive performance which will be staged at Fábrica de Arte Cubano this month, is designed to provoke a critical awareness of the systems of labor used to produce our clothing. We buy into the works of our favorite designer, in effect become a walking billboard for a certain organization of labor, but thinking about clothing — what it means, how it feels, how it’s made — is an activity we rarely embrace.
Willard and I met at Ideal Glass, his project space on East 2nd street, where we we talked about how Vestiphobia explores the imbricated relationship of capitalism and fashion, and why wearing clothes forms such an essential and unavoidable part of our daily lives.
Jeffrey Grunthaner: How would you characterize Vestiphobia? Is it more of a play or a performance?
Willard Morgan: Vestiphobia is more than a performance; it’s a project that also includes a workshop in ‘sustainable art wear’ and a film series about fashion. The initial idea started with the shame of the child, with me, the dandy-cowboy, wearing nothing but my plastic gun, my boots and a hat on — and my father being very embarrassed that people would think he could not buy me clothing. It then developed into a full-scale musical performance. And we’re presenting it for the first time in Havana at the end of the month!
JG: Can you talk a little bit about the plot that develops in the performance?
WM: The plot intertwines real historical facts and imagined, fantasized histories. It starts with the naked child in a fictional garden of Eden, quickly goes to the rights of passage of the adolescent, wanting to fit in, wanting to wear what is cool, with the 60’s and the commodification of clothing. If you smoke pot and have a ponytail and wear Indian rags, you’re a revolutionary! The sloganeering of that period, the differences between generations, the war, which was quickly reduced to commodifying the revolution… It’s a journey through time, space… and your closet!
JG: You’re saying that revolution was commodified through fashion?
WM: Well, through lifestyle! Levi’s jumped on it, the wearing of the uniform of the revolutionary, which would be the jeans, t-shirts and the P-jacket. That is where that arc of sedation and manipulation politically goes throughout the piece. Vestiphobia is a celebration of creativity, but it’s also a satirical condemnation of our own ten or twelve dollar wool sweaters.
The thing with fashion is that it’s a parasitic industry, because there’s no investment in infrastructure. All they need is sweatshops, and sewing machines. The companies can say “If you can’t make a T-shirt for a buck, I’m out of here tomorrow.” They don’t have to create a living wage, because there’s no way to have accountability. Who is folding? Who is sewing the labels on? Who’s dyeing? The finished product may be packaged under green circumstances, but how could they possibly track every aspect of the manufacturing of a bowtie, or a handkerchief or lipstick? Aside from agriculture, clothing uses the most human resources in the world. It’s the most downloaded content on the web, besides porn. Everyone wants to look at the runway.
JG: So Vestiphobia is about socio-economic foundations underlying how we dress?
WM: Yes! It’s all about sustainability and making people aware that we’re being sedated and killing people to make us feel good. As well as being entertainment, it’s speaking to issues that we’re in the middle of. A T-shirt takes a thousand gallons of water to produce, from sea to clothing rack. These are some of the messages involved in the piece. Vestiphobia seemed to be an ironic title. It’s the fear of wearing clothes, but also the claustrophobia, the tightness of clothing. We were looking for a title and one of my collaborators, Nicholas Motyka, heard me saying that I both loved and hated clothing. He looked that up and discovered that it was a real thing, with a wonderful word, which seems to be a great umbrella for this obsession.
JG: Vestiphobia will be staged this month at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, which seems very apt for this type of performance. How did you get involved with that space?
WM: I’ve been going to Cuba since 2000. On my first trip I met some major people in the arts, filmmakers, musicians. I developed a bunch of friends and collaborators this way. Back in New York I met producers with experience working in Cuba, Grettel Carbo and Berta Jottar. They helped us build a partnership with FAC and put together a cast of Cuban actors, dancers, and musicians… incredibly talented artists. Back in New York I also started collaborating with Director Steve Fagin (who directed the legendary piece, Tropicola). He looked at what I had been working on for years and adapted it for a Cuban audience.
I think it’s a very important time for this subject because the Cubans are enormously creative in making due with nothing. Everyone knows how they keep cars together. But what they don’t know is that fashion-wise, they’re turning out unbelievable things. They have designers that will blow your mind, making stuff out of plastic bottles, straws, and plastic bags. Their aesthetic is extremely high. And they’re 11 million people on the verge of industrialization. It’s not a banana republic. It’s not just going to be a tourist haven. It’s going to be manufacturing based. There’s going to be a lot of people off the dole if this whole system deteriorates. Once it changes into a capitalist society from soft socialism, by and large it will be the entrepreneurs who survive, so there will be factories and industries of every sort. I’m sure all the major manufacturers will say “to hell with Mexico.” They’ll be in Cuba making Levi’s and whatever.
JG: Cotton is really fundamental to the fashion industry, how its labor is used, and even exploited. It’s been especially tragic in India, one of the first nations to produce cotton.
WM: It’s crazy how we’ve been manipulated by this one amazing fabric and crop. The plantation owners claim lack of responsibility because what the market bears is acceptable. The slave nation was supported by the colonization of slavery, England gave up its slaves in 1833, but they kept the slaves in the United States economy, because the price of cotton was the only thing that made that property worthwhile. What we used to call “the third world” has been manipulated and colonized time and time again, outlawed from making cloth. They could only produce the crop, they weren’t allowed to weave. And now, again, we’re killing people, underpaying them, and squeezing them to make a dollar T-shirt and destroying their labor pool, not allowing them to profit from the ability to have their own industry.
JG: How long has Vestiphobia been gestating? It’s had different iterations in the past, no?
WM: Should be completed with how long the previous show I did with Uta Bekaia and John Sully, which was based on Hollywood and my experiences there. It was called Saint Hollywood and it was a multimedia musical one-man show with some supporting cast. Uta and I had worked together. He was a great collaborator, so generative. He could make a wedding dress out of a trash bag. He took a pair of chopsticks and made military combat headpieces.
JG: Was it this playful manipulation materials that inspired you to focus on a performance about fashion?
WM: That was one of the facets, knowing that Uta can do anything with materials and turn out something artful and wearable whether it’s comfortable or not is not the question.
JG: What was your collaborative process like?
WM: Usually it was Uta and myself, adding John for score and production, as he is a brilliant producer. Uta and I would talk about what we were fascinated with, what we had around, what period we wanted to focus on and whether we wanted it to be conventionally representative of that period. We would try to press the envelope and make things abstract and original. The Silks and Satins video is pretty much the 16th and 17th century court wear that he designed in his imagination with fantastic colors and materials, but was a rather archetypal representation. Most of the other collections were as far out as possible. There were some conflicts in this. So I would remind Uta that I would have to move in these costumes. He would often be design over function and I would be function and design at once. It’s gotta be outrageous but I gotta be able to move, so we met in the middle. And then John added the beat, and the rhythm and production level that would heighten it.
I’m a lyricist first and a musician second. I love opera, Puccini, Andrew Lloyd Webber, rock operas, Gilbert and Sullivan, Elvis Costello, people that paint pictures and tell stories that are politically and satirically driven. So I would come up with a melody or a feel. John would collaborate on that and sometimes he would put a reggae beat to something in the 16th century and I’d go, “that’s far out!” Or I’d say, “no, I don’t want that 70’s disco thing.” He’s a style master. Any which way was fine. We would try things out and see what worked theatrically.
JG: Within the context of the performance, do you have an idea of what fashion might look like going forward, or what you would like to see happen in the future?
WM: Adidas just came out with a sneaker that dissolves under a certain fluid. It’s inevitable and it’s great because with a certain solution they can take a sneaker that would fill up landfill and get rid of it. There’s acres and acres of landfill filled with this shit because it wears out in six months. So Adidas is on the cutting edge of making things reusable and that’s all we can hope for because we need stuff but I’m a mad recycler. I try to get these young kids to give me all their plastic bags and take them to Whole Foods because they apparently recycle them. Japan and Germany are examples of hyper recycling. We need to go that way, we need to educate people, and that’s the only hope.
JG: Is there an iteration of this performance coming stateside?
WM: We’ve done Ideal Glass ‘workshops’ in New York, while developing the project, but I’m looking more towards site specific if I can find a factory to do it in. What I like to do is get the project out into the world. That’s why I’m doing shows in Spanish, and the videos will be subtitled. I’m collaborating with Cuban actors that I know and work with who don’t speak English. So it’ll be a real mash-up, and a lot of fun. It’s ambitious. It’s dark, it’s satirical, it’s amusing, it’s sexy, it’s Fabrica, it’s fashion. And I think it’s the right time for [Cuba]. Certainly the venue is spectacular. People identify with this because it is the fabric of our lives. And you can bury me in one of my T-shirts!
THE WORKSHOP – GALERIA TALLER GORRIA
February 13th-22nd, 2017
THE PERFORMANCE – FABRICA DE ARTE CUBANO
February 23rd-26th, 2017